Agencies learn from missteps during last year’s flooding in Nashville

Federal agencies are revamping their data-sharing and communications practices along the lines of criticisms laid out last week in a National Weather Service self-assessment of the May 2010 response to deadly flooding around Nashville, Tenn.

The report, written by a team of Weather Service specialists not directly involved in the record flooding in Tennessee and Kentucky that resulted in 26 deaths and more than $2 billion in damage, said the Weather Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers "did not communicate effectively regarding updated releases (outflows) from USACE reservoirs. This lack of critical information exchange and mutual understanding of each other's operations led to inaccurate river crest forecasts on the Cumberland River."

Because the actual rainfall and river heights turned out to be much higher than predicted, local authorities and "many residents of Nashville who were interviewed stated that they 'had no warning,' despite numerous watches and warnings issued" by the local NWS forecasting office, the report said. "The residents perceived that flood warnings did not directly affect them; they could not relate river levels to flooding at specific locations."

A lack of interactive high-resolution maps, the NWS assessment added, hampered the ability of local authorities responsible for evacuation decisions to issue warnings with enough specifics to help citizens flee.

Among the report's recommendations were new training; more frequent interagency contact; multiagency cooperation in producing dynamic inundation maps; improved real-time exchange of technological data to form a common operating picture; and more conference calls between field offices to circulate forecasts and up-to-the minute reports of water levels.

NWS officials in response said Nashville-area officials already are pursuing the report's recommendations. Jane Hollingsworth, a Reno, Nev.-based NWS meteorologist who led the 10-member assessment team, told Government Executive the Tennessee-area teams are "working with the Corps of Engineers on automated data feeds and holding meetings to learn more about our operations." They are focusing on the "wording and dissemination of flood warnings, their effectiveness and how [local] people interpreted them," she said. "We're working with social scientists on how to get the word out using mobile phones."

Lt. Col. Anthony Mitchell, district engineer for the Nashville district of the Army Corps of Engineers, said the NWS report jibes with the Corps' own after-action assessments. "We never said there weren't some miscommunications -- it was an unprecedented event and chaotic in nature," he said. "None of the agencies perceived we'd receive that amount of rainfall. NWS had predicted three to five inches, but we got two to three times that in certain areas."

Mitchell agreed with the need for "a management structure to relay information and communications. The Corps is working not just with NWS but also with the U.S. Geological Survey and the city of Nashville on broader flood preparedness initiatives."

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